Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Walking on a Roof

By Matt Cantor
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:41:00 AM

Now, straight off, I want to say that climbing ladders and walking on roofs is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for me. I have to do it for my job and, frankly, I hate it. Well, not all the time, but there are days when I dread it and I’ll tell you some stories of occasions that either validated my dread or exacerbated it. 

Truth be told, I’ve always been a scaredy-cat. I don’t ride a motorcycle, I’ve never jumped out of a plane and I don’t like driving on mountain roads. So much for my virility; I’m a sensitive male. Notwithstanding, I do have to do a few things in my job that make me seem pretty macho. Nobody likes crawling through crawlspaces but for me it’s no problem. 

ºApparently, I’m not particularly claustrophobic (and the wildlife is grossly overly dramatized). I have to handle wiring and open live electrical panels but, again, not a problem. I understand the danger and know how to keep myself safe. But when it comes to heights, things are not good and they’ve gotten worse with time (again, I’ll tell you more about that later). Nonetheless, I’ve been climbing ladders for many years and I continue to do so with decreasing comfort. 

Some years ago, I had an experience that, for better or worse, may have caused some increased wariness on my part. My ladder just barely reached the edge of a particular roof edge and I could not gauge the incline from the ground. I launched up the ladder, snaked myself off onto the roof and crawled up toward the ridge. Then it happened. I looked back. My heart began to pound and I was overtaken by dread. What had I done? I was now on a slightly slippery surface at a steep incline and the ladder was far behind me only just barely peeking over the edge. I was mortified and it took some time to calm myself down enough to work my way backward, which I did very slowly and with elephantine trepidation. Eventually, I worked my way back to the ladder and somehow slithered, one toe at a time, back onto the ladder. 

Ultimately, I got down, but the experience was hard to put behind me. I still feel it from time to time when the situation is similar. Vexingly, this has happened to somewhat lesser degrees in subsequent years but I have learned a few things that have decreased the effect. First, I’m getting older and my body is telling me that I don’t have the balance that I once had and should curtail some of the acrobatics I once considered de rigueur in the performance of my duties. Secondly, I’ve stopped expecting myself to do with my ladder what should rightly be performed with a longer ladder. Here’s the rule one should follow if you are foolhardy enough to climb on roofs: One should have three rungs of the ladder above the roof (some say three feet). This allows one enough grasp to be well connected to the ladder prior to placing any part of the body over the edge. 

Next, be sure to place the ladder at the proper incline. One way of gauging this is to look at the rungs. Many ladders have a flat-top rung that shows what angle the ladder should be set at. Ladders should be placed about a 75-degree angle. You should be able to place your toes at the base of the ladder and reach outward and grasp the ladder with arms fully extended. Many ladders also have an image on the edge showing the proper incline. I find that more people fail in the direction of having too much angle than not enough. Ladders are more likely to slide out at the base than to topple from above although it is clearly a bad idea to be too close to fully upright in the event that you lean or fall backward.  

If this all sounds frightening, that’s good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11 percent of workplace injuries are due to falls (think of all the various kinds of injuries that can occur and you’ll realize what a large number that is) and one-fifth of those were through or off of roofs (falls off of ladders or scaffoldings are responsible for about one-seventh). The BLM says that in 1997 falls accounted for over 700 deaths and nearly one-third of a million injuries and, remember, these are only work-related. Total figures are surely much higher. 

Be sure that your ladder is in good shape. Keeping a bad ladder is a lousy way to save money, medical bills being what they are. If your husband keeps getting on a bad ladder, find the hacksaw (or handsaw if it’s wood) and cut it in half while he’s off playing street hockey. Just say it was an accident and you’re terribly sorry when he finds out. Be sure to smile and make him a big sandwich. 

Ladders should always be planted on a firm, level surface. I’ve often spent some serious time looking for the right place to mount a roof. Also, I usually look for the shortest ascent. If you’re house is on an incline, one side will usually have a significantly shorter climb to the roof.  

Consider the surface where you might fall. I usually opt for soil over concrete and will prefer to climb a bit higher if I can place myself over a lawn rather than a driveway. Ladders can easily slide sideways if you’re leaning left or right, so be sure to find or create a stable flat plane for the ladder to rest upon. A small block or rock may fall out in mid-ascent or, worse, when you’re getting back on the ladder from the roof (the most dangerous time in my experience).  

If you can afford leg-levelers, these are quite nice. I’ve done nicely without one but again, I spend a lot of time making sure I find a level place and I’m not afraid to “just say no” when it does not seem safe, which is, ultimately, the upside of my having scared myself half to death. 

I’d also like to say a bit about being on roofs and strategies that have worked for me over the years. First, stay away from the edge. This may sound self-evident but I’ve had more than a few folks with me on roofs who were pretty cavalier about approaching the edge of a roof. When I do need to see something really close to the edge, I get down on my butt and ease myself over to what I need to see. In short, I act as if I could fall or lose my balance at any time and try to place myself so that the worst fate I’d be likely to experience is falling ON to the roof. Don’t be macho. There is nothing to prove and ending up in a wheelchair isn’t worth trying to look brave. 

When I’m on a roof, I also try to use various fascias and pipes to hold onto. Don’t be afraid to use a gutter for balance but remember that it probably won’t hold your weight if you’re falling. I also like to place my ladder where I can use a pipe or flue to grasp if I’m unsteady. Be sure not to use an electrical mast in this way. There are often bare wires, that can shock, extending from these and it’s best to play it safe. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that a little dew is a very dangerous thing. Save the roof for the afternoon after the dew is well dried; also look out for moss and algae. Take time to test the friction of the surface and be sure to wear good rubber-soled shoes (and tie those laces!) 

I was recently on a new wooden shake roof out in Contra Costa County early in the AM and suddenly found myself skating across the surface of the roof (downhill, of course). I let my knees go and went splat onto the roof as flat as I could. I was fine but was blessed with the realization that even when a roof appears to be free of moss and rough of surface, it can hold enough surface moisture to become a “slip-and-slide.” Had I not had the presence of mind to drop, I might easily have skated off the edge, SO, if you are on a roof and you do start to slide, just let yourself fall in place. This is one more good reason to stay well away from the edge. If you need to clear gutters, stay on the ladder. 

My friend, the estimable Martin Kramer (a former JFK speech writer and frequent Peetnik) posited that my increasing skittishness on ascending ladders might be less a function of not listening to my inner voice and more a function of hearing (or my inner ear!). 

Turns out that this is a common problem. America’s Agony Aunt, Dear Abbey had a case last year of a construction worker in Vallejo, CA who was experiencing increasing anxiety with heights and at least two respondents suggested that he get his inner ear checked.  

Although little is know about the causes of most balance disorders, we do know that several exist including Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis and Ménière’s disease. An inner ear infection can cause loss of balance and, in some cases, a course of streptomycin can clear it up. 

So to all of you who experience the willies when climbing a ladder I offer Mr. Dickens’ words offered to one man’s haunt: 

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” 

To my haunt, I say, There may be more infection than introspection about you! (or perhaps “more inner-ear than inner-fear”) 

Let me end by saying with no small emphasis that ladders and the conquest of roofs is not pedestrian stuff. It is best left to those who know it well and well worth the dollars to avoid. If you must do it, get yourself a good ladder, tie your shoes and take your time. I wish you good sense AND good luck. 

(*Note to self. Call Kaiser. Have cochlea checked.)